Saturday 23 March 2019

Poor Collins

This is the extraordinarily heartfelt epitaph of the poet William Collins, from his monument in Chichester cathedral. His name is often yoked with Gray and Goldsmith as the three leading poets of the mid-18th century, but he is probably now the least read even of these. The fervency of his epitaph shows how highly he was esteemed in his time, even after years of sad, unproductive decline.
In his Lives of the Poets, Johnson (himself one of the best poets of the 18th century) gives a judicious account of Collins's strengths and weaknesses as a poet, and clearly feels great sympathy for him as a man:

'The latter part of his life cannot be remembered but with pity and sadness. He languished some years under that depression of mind which enchains the faculties without destroying them, and leaves reason the knowledge of right, without the power of pursuing it. These clouds, which he found gathering on his intellects, he endeavoured to disperse by travel, and passed into France, but found himself constrained to yield to his malady, and returned: he was for some time confined in a house for lunatics, and afterwards retired to the care of his sister in Colchester [for Chichester], where death at last came to his relief.

After his return from France, the writer of this character paid him a visit at Islington, where he was waiting for his sister, whom he had directed to meet him: there was then nothing of disorder discernible in his mind by any but himself, but he had then withdrawn from study, and travelled with no other book than an English testament, such as children carry to school; when his friend took it into his hand, out of curiosity to see what companion a man of letters had chosen, "I have but one book," says Collins, "but that is the best."'

And that is the book (in rather larger format) that he is shown with in the relief above his epitaph. The relief was carved by Flaxman, the epitaph written by William Hayley, the friend and biographer of Cowper.

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